It’s an ongoing argument across the Internet: what exactly is “steampunk”? The simplest description would be “science fiction, by way of Victorian England”; certainly, the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells fit the bill nicely, and most likely form the standards by which modern steampunk works are judged. But to someone who’s never read their work, or to people who are a bit more loose with those standards, steampunk can be frustrating to pin down. After all, it’s encompassed works ranging from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Thief: The Dark Project, two works that couldn’t be less alike if they tried. The end result is convention-goers and comic artists creating “steampunk” by way of attaching brass cogs to ordinary objects at random, while also exhausting their local Home Depot’s supply of metallic copper spray paint.
Which is why, when I saw a stack of these Bicycle Steam Punk playing cards on the shelf at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, I had initially scoffed at the idea. How steampunk can a deck of cards really be, especially one with the Bicycle imprint on it? Bicycle, who until recently clung so tightly to the traditional designs of yesteryear? To see them doing this seemed like an overly easy move, one that probably required little actual effort on their part. Then again, seeing the Steam Punks on the same shelf next to “Tattoo” and “Zombies” decks made the whole thing look like soulless pandering to me.
I finally did purchase a deck of Steam Punk several months after the fact, as I was beginning to notice Bicycle were by no means skimping on the designs and materials on their “designer” decks. If Bicycle could do so well with transparent all-plastic cards, why would I assume a deck like these to be worse?
Upon opening the box, the Steam Punks greeted me with…well, not a lot of note. The card backs certainly match what’s on the box, taking on the appearance of complicated clockwork machinery. And the two “jokers” – lacking the usual Joker markings, but rather bearing “US” ranks and the United States Playing Card Company Guarantee – bear a pleasing design that resembles a steam turbine, which is echoed on the Ace of Spades.
What of the rest of the deck, though? Are the royals decked out in Victorian gear, with brass goggles and pocket watches? No, actually. The entire rest of the deck is just a basic Bicycle deck, with the same ordinary Kings and Queens that any basic off-the-shelf deck would have. I can’t help but feel it was a missed opportunity, especially a deck that looked so awesome from the box. It’s even among the handful of Bicycle decks that credits its designer on the bottom of the pack: Alex Beltechi of theory11.com. Theory11 have become notable for their “luxury” decks lately, so it’s bizarre to me to find their name on what is ultimately such an unremarkable deck. Even more bizarre is that the Steam Punk deck comes in a number of alternate packages, some shiny, some not, some silver, some bronze. I am unaware if there are any differences on the inside of the pack, though, as I wasn’t going to buy a second one if the first one was so disappointing.
There’s got to be better than this.
In unrelated shopping, I came home with a comparatively ordinary Bicycle deck: the No. 808 Autocycle No. 1 deck, effectively a reprint of two classic Bicycle designs from around the turn of the 20th century. As the information card inside tells it, the box’s design is based on original artwork from 1892, while the card backs are from a design called Autocycle #1 that was printed between 1901 and 1906. The faces, even, are highly traditional: the Jokers are Bicycle’s iconic King riding an actual bicycle, and the print style is a bit ritzier, and in fact, a bit smaller. The rank numbers are just a little smaller than an average modern deck. Yet, for all its throwbacks, the No. 808 deck is produced with modern materials and processes, meaning these are exactly the kind of textured, air-cushioned cards that Bicycle does well. If you’re going to host a steampunk card game, I feel that these cards would be more at home there than the actual Steam Punk deck.
But that’s not where this ends.
In more unrelated shopping, I found myself at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. (It turns out, bookstores are really good places to buy decks of cards.) Among the masses of trendy board games, purpose-built card games like Cards Against Humanity, and those eye-searingly awful Funko Pop! figures, was an unassuming little shelf full of “traditional” games. On that shelf was a selection of fancier Bicycle and theory11 decks, of which I selected a deck called Tycoon. I’d been drawn in by its royal-blue matte packaging with its brass-colored design, as well as its branding as “Chamber Magic luxury playing cards.” How luxurious could this be?
Well, despite what the box would indicate, the card backs are not shiny. That’s already a point against it, but the information card inside immediately retracted that point: this deck is, according to the card, “the official cards of Chamber Magic – Steve Cohen, the Millionaires’ Magician.” Even looking at the man’s website shows me something that is, once again, right at home in the Victorian Era, if not slightly past it. The Jokers have Mr. Cohen on them (or at least a highly stylized pen-and-ink rendition of a stage magician), and the royals have actual flesh-toned skin instead of the traditional uncolored white skin (this is really weird to me, because I’m not used to that – like The Simpsons without the characteristic yellow flesh). The rest of the deck is just basic pips and ranks, but I can’t argue with the way they feel, and these at least don’t have any wasted ambitions of being steampunk.
The last deck today, though, blows all three previous decks right out of the water: Bicycle Flying Machines, released with a copyright date of 2016. The information card credits card artist Mark Stutzman, who is also mentioned to have illustrated for Time Magazine, Esquire, the Rolling Stone, and even the United States Postal Service. With a pedigree like that, this deck is in no danger of being a disappointment.
Sure enough, Stutzman’s artwork adorns not only the backs, but the Jokers, the Aces, and even the basic suit pips. The only things not given the pen-and-ink treatment are the royals, which – like the theory11 Tycoon deck – have a more flesh-toned appearance, but are overall colored with pastels and pale tones, rather than the traditional bright red and yellow. It produces a very eye-pleasing result. The four Ace cards (not just the Ace of Spades, but all four of them) each bear a classy pen-and-ink illustration of a fantastical mechanical flying machine. Between hot air, rotors, steam, and flapping ornithopter wings, all the classic eccentric types are represented in this deck. The Jokers even produce an amusing two-panel sequence: the first Joker is riding a pedal-powered helicopter, while the second Joker shows the same machine having fallen apart in mid-air. And I must once again mention the suit pips: every suit has a clockwork appearance, and the rank numbers are in a very pleasing and unambiguous early-1900s playbill font. In short, no matter which cards are in your hand, there is always some element of style to behold.
The Flying Machines deck is such a great example of a deck that goes above and beyond, design-wise, and yet isn’t any worse to play with. It’s such a joy to play with them, to stop once in a while and admire the work put into them, that it’s more confusing to me how the standout Bicycle Steam Punk deck didn’t do this kind of design to begin with. I just don’t get it. And it’s not like the Flying Machines deck cost any more, either. Perhaps that’ll just have to be a mystery for the ages.